The Rastafari Movement

When you think of Rastafari and Rastas, you probably think mainly of marijuana, dreadlocks and reggae. But Rastafari is much more and has its origins in the African diaspora, where African slaves in the Americas largely left their origins and traditions behind and the Rasta movement gave them a new dream. The most famous Rasta is probably Bob Marley, who made the movement famous with his music. Rastafari is not very organized as a religion, it is also mainly an ideology and way of life.

Origin of Rastafari

The origins of Rastafari lie in Jamaica in the twenties and thirties, in the poor neighborhoods and slums. Jamaica at that time was characterized by great poverty, racism and major differences between rich and poor. About 98% of the population came from black slaves. The message of Rastafari, which preached pride in being black, a return to Africa and freedom from oppression, found a willing audience among the poor, black population. The movement began with Marcus Garvey, who preached the return to Africa and that the black people of Jamaica were originally Israelites, exiled to Jamaica as divine punishment. He also preached ‘black pride’ as an antidote to prevailing racism. He embraced Pan-Africanism and proposed an Afro-centric worldview. Garvey is seen within the movement as a second John the Baptist, he predicted in 1927: ‘Look to Africa, where a king will be crowned’. This king was Ras Tafari Makonnen, who was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930. He held the titles ‘Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judea’, ‘Elect by God’ and ‘King of the Kings of Ethiopia’ . These are traditional titles of the emperor of Ethiopia and refer to the Old Testament, which is emphasized in the country’s Christian heritage. For the Rastafarians, the coronation of Haile Selassie was the fulfillment of several verses from the Bible and of Garvey’s prophecy. Haile Selassie was the messiah and with his coronation the return of the former slaves to Africa would begin. The movement was named after Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie’s name before he was crowned) and Haile Selassie became the personification of God on earth, Jah (short for Yahweh). Haile Selassie himself denied his divine personality and Garvey considered Haile Selassie a failure as emperor, especially after his loss of the Italian forces in the country. In 1937, Garvey wrote an article ‘ The Failure of Haile Selassie as Emperor ‘. However, Rastafarians continue to maintain the divinity of the Ethiopian emperor.

Black and White

In the 1930s, peaceful communities based on Rastafari ideas began to form in Jamaica in the slums of Kingston. Here the customs as we know them to this day developed: the music, the dreadlocks, art and the typical language. Leonard Howell was one of the founders of the movement and he established six principles:

  • hatred of whites
  • the superiority of the black race
  • revenge on the whites for their wickedness
  • preparation for return to Africa
  • denying, persecuting and humiliating the Jamaican government and its representatives
  • the recognition of Emperor Haile Selassie as a superior being and sole leader of the black race

As the movement developed, many of these principles were cast aside.

Haile Selassie and Jamaica

Although Haile Selassie denied his divine status, in 1955 he decided to donate land to blacks who wanted to return to Africa. Around 2,200 people actually returned in the 1960s, including many Rastafarians. However, this group had a hard time, the Ethiopian population had difficulty accepting them, the government that came after Haile Selassie did not like them and many left Ethiopia.

On April 21, 1966, Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, which for many in the Ras Tafari movement is a high point in their history. Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife, also saw him during this visit and converted to Rastafarianism. She saw stigmata appearing on his body and became convinced of his divinity. Also, the arrival of Haile Selassie brought rain to Jamaica after a long period of drought, adding to his divinity for the faithful. Haile Selassie convinced the Rastafarians that they must first liberate the population of Jamacia before returning to Ethiopia (‘liberation before repatriation’). For Rastafarians, April 21 became a holiday and it also became an event that legitimized the movement. When Haile Selassie was deposed in a coup in 1974 and killed a year later, many Rastas believed this was untrue and that he was hidden until Judgment Day. Others said he lived on through individual Rastas.

The Faith

The faith of the Rastafarians is based on the Judeo-Christian faith and God is called Jah. The emphasis is on the Old Testament and Revelations. The holy book of the Rastas is ‘the Holy Piby’, the Bible for the Black Man. This book is based on the Bible and was compiled by Robert Athlyi Rogers of Anguilla and published in 1924. All deliberate distortions by white people in the translation into English were taken from the Bible by Rogers. Jesus was the personification of Jah and was black, after him he was personified by Haile Selassie. Selassie is called His Imperial Majesty: HIM or ‘him’. There is no belief in a next life, but people look to Africa (Zion) as heaven on earth. True Rastas are said to be immortal and have eternal life, both physically and spiritually, something called ‘ever living’. Another important concept is ‘I and I’, which is also used in place of ‘you and I’. It emphasizes the unity between God and humanity and the equality of all people. The concept of ‘Babylon’ is also important, which refers to Europe and America, the superpowers that have oppressed blacks for so long and cruelly and still maintain the subordination of black people.


Marijuana is used ritually by Rastas, it is also called ‘ganja’ and they see it as a gift from God. It is mainly used during the two most important rituals: reasonings and nyabingi. The reasoning is quite informal and there is marijuana smoking and discussion. One person starts smoking the pipe and the others bow their heads, then the pipe is passed around. The meeting is over when the participants leave one by one. The nyabingi or binghi is an occasion that involves dancing and is more official in nature, being held during holidays and special occasions. These dance events can last several days. At night there is dancing and during the day there is resting and talking. Often thousands of Rastafarians gather on such an occasion.

True Rastafarians follow a fairly strict diet called Ital, in which they abstain from meat, alcohol and all unnatural products (anything that has been processed, contains colourants, flavors or preservatives). Anything processed is rejected and many Rastafarians are vegetarians and vegans. Coffee and milk are considered unnatural and products are eaten raw as much as possible. Alcohol is also not consumed, which, unlike marijuana, is considered unnatural because it is fermented.

Dreadlocks have a special meaning for Rastas. First of all, there is the Biblical command not to cut one’s hair ( Lev 21:5). In addition, there is the appearance of the lion’s mane, which is an important symbol for Rastas, as it represents Africa, Ethiopia and the lion of Judea. The naturalness and simplicity of the hairstyle refer to Africa, where the roots of the Rastas lie.

Rastafari Flag

In addition, there are the three colors: red, yellow and green that are important to the Rastas and always appear. Red represents the Rastas’ triumphal church and the blood of the martyrs in the freedom struggle. Gold or yellow represents the wealth of the African country and green represents the fertile Ethiopia. In addition, black represents the black people and the lion plays an important role as ‘the lion of Judea’, Haile Selassie, Africa and strength. The Rastafari movement can be divided into three main ‘houses’: the Btabhinghi, the Bobo Ashanti and the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The Rastafari movement became internationally known mainly through music. Bob Marley in particular achieved worldwide recognition, together with various other reggae bands.

Rastafari Holidays:

  • January 7 – Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas
  • March 25 – Birthday of Empress Menen
  • April 21 – Anniversary of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica, also known as Grounation Day
  • May 25 – African Liberation Day
  • June 16 – Birthday of Leonard P. Howell (founder)
  • July 23 – Birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie
  • August 17 – Marcus Garvey’s Birthday
  • September 11 – Ethiopian New Year
  • November 2 – The coronation of Haile Selassie